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Sunday, November 20, 2011
Big Game rivalry lives up to billing

By Kevin Gemmell



STANFORD, Calif. -- David Shaw was having flashbacks. In seconds, the Stanford head coach and former Cardinal wide receiver was re-running every funky play and freaky scenario and wacky finish that have been historic staples of the Big Game.

Here’s the scene on a rainy Saturday night at Stanford Stadium: Cal scores a touchdown with 14 seconds left to cut Stanford’s lead to 31-28. Here comes the onside kick. Anything can happen, right? A Cal recovery and Hail Mary? The ball bounces off of seven Stanford players and Cal converts a 65-yard field goal? It’s the Big Game. Seems plausible. At least at the time.

“I got The Play going through my head. I got the 1990 crazy game with the onside kicks going through my head,” Shaw said. “We just supported our defense. Even if they went down and scored, we made them take so much time off the clock. We knew if we got the onside kick the game was over.”

And it was. The onside kick went right to tight end Coby Fleener, who caught the ball on the one hop, cradled and dropped. No crazy bounces. No students or trombones appeared on the field until the clock read 0:00. Game over. Stanford wins the 114th Big Game. The Axe stays in Palo Alto for at least another year.

“There is still with 14 seconds – you’re thinking about The Play – you never know what can happen – ‘The band is on the field,’” said defensive end Ben Gardner, recalling Joe Starkey’s famous call from the 1982 game. “Luckily, the band stayed in their seats and Coby was able to recover the onside kick. He saved us.”

Aside from the late-game Cal heroics, it was standard Stanford. A slow start on offense before the Cardinal picked it up in the second half and – seemingly— pulled away behind two touchdown passes from Andrew Luck.

Andrew Luck
Andrew Luck shook off an unproductive first half to throw two second-half touchdown passes.
The Cardinal were coming off their first loss of the season – a 53-30 schooling by the Oregon Ducks – that dashed (maybe?) their national title hopes. Luck in particular didn’t have that great of a game. Like his teammates, he was anxious to get back on the field.

“The best medicine, I guess is football when you’ve lost a game,” said Luck, who finished 20-of-30 for 257 yards, an interception (which came when Ty Montgomery slipped and fell on his route) and two touchdowns. “It was good to get out and play a quality opponent in a rivalry game.”

And despite the rain and the cold, the rivalry game proved to be as advertised. The Cardinal struck first. Following a Cal fumble, Montgomery scored on a 34-yard end-around. But after a Giorgio Tavecchio field goal and Luck’s interception – his fifth in four games – Cal took a 10-7 lead.

“It was tough sledding,” Shaw said. “We didn’t make some plays early in the game that I thought we should have and they took advantage of it and came storming back … It wasn’t pretty. But doggone it we fought to the end and got the win.”

The Cardinal returned to their ground game in the second quarter, rushing for 85 yards, which included a 6-yard Tyler Gaffney touchdown run.

Then Luck took off in the third quarter, completing 8 of 10 passes for 135 yards and tossing touchdowns to Levine Toilolo and Ryan Hewitt.

But Cal quarterback Zach Maynard wouldn’t let the Axe go that easily. He orchestrated a touchdown drive early in the fourth and the final-minute dramatics that ended with the onside kick.

Safety Delano Howell called it a character victory for the Cardinal.

“We understood that how we responded to the loss last week was a challenge to our character,” said Howell, who finished with seven tackles and a fumble recovery. “Grown men, they respond in a positive way. They don’t reflect on the past or use that in a negative manner or in an adverse way. In order to prove who we were as a team, we had to come out and make a statement tonight.”

And there were, of course, the standard missed tackles in the open field. Wouldn’t be a Stanford game without them. But it’s a win – and that’s exactly what this team needed in the wake of last week’s crippling loss to the Ducks.

“I think we were looser as a team,” Gardner said. “The nature of last week’s game, the national implications. Now we’re playing like a team with nothing to lose, because we don’t. We’re a team fighting for a BCS bowl and we know that. But we knew we had to come out and play looser than we did last week because we made too many mistakes last week and that’s partly because we were tight. At the same time, it’s Cal. We knew they’d try to punch us in the mouth. We had to play our game. It wasn’t always pretty. But we got the win and the Axe is staying here.”

For Luck, it caps a conference career that ends with back-to-back wins over Stanford’s oldest rival.

“It means a lot,” he said. “It will mean more once the season is over when you get to reminisce. But I feel very grateful and blessed to have won two games in a row against them and retain the Axe for at least another year.”